St. Elizabeth Ann Seton: The Call to Teach
“At Whatever Risk, Yet Go Forward”
To Teach…Or Not to Teach?
Elizabeth Ann Seton was thinking about moving to Canada. She missed her sons and thought their experience at Georgetown would qualify them for a school in Montreal. She also thought she would thrive spiritually with her newfound faith in a Catholic environment that was not limited only to church. Father Louis Dubourg, president of St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore, invited her to open a school for girls. He told her, “Come to us, Mrs. Seton, we will assist you in forming a plan for your life.” He promised to accept her sons into the college for free, and she and the girls would live in a small house that had just been finished, with as many girls in her care as she could manage. Elizabeth protested that she had no talents for this undertaking, to which Fr. Dubourg replied, “We want example more than talents.” This was the call. Now, the question became, what to do? Her benefactors, the Filicchis, urged Canada. All of her priest friends encouraged her to go to Baltimore. Her friend Francis Matignon wrote, “I believe you are destined for some great good in the United States.” Fr. Dubourg only had two prospective students for this school (his nieces), but he had escaped the French Revolution dressed as a fiddler, so he knew something about risk. For Elizabeth’s part, her husband’s family’s coat of arms had the motto that translates to, “At Whatever Risk, Yet Go Forward.” Putting her faith and trust in the will of God, she answered the call and she went forward. On Thursday, June 9, 1808, Elizabeth and her daughters boarded a boat and left New York for Baltimore.
Elizabeth arrived in Baltimore on June 16, 1808, the feast of Corpus Christi, a particularly significant date considering her devotion to the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. St. Mary’s Chapel was filled with priests, seminarians, and students. As she opened the door, the prayer for mercy, the “Kyrie Eleison,” was echoing from the altar, and the beauty of the chapel and the sound of the music and prayers left her transfixed. “Human nature could scarcely bear it,” she wrote. After Mass, she was welcomed by the priests and shown the house, which was between two orchards; there was also a vegetable garden and the chapel, the bells of which rang throughout the day for prayer. After the hostility she had faced in New York, Elizabeth felt that she was in paradise. By October, she had three students; combined with her own three daughters, that is all she could manage in the beginning. Students received lessons in reading, writing, arithmetic, English, and French and paid extra for music, dancing, and drawing. When classes ended at 5pm, Elizabeth herself sat down to study and prepare for the next day’s lessons. She wrote to her friend Julia: “What would amuse you would be to see Your old Lady seated gravely with a slate and pencil with a Master of Arithmetic stuffing her brain with dollars cents and fractions, and actually going over the studies both in grammar and figures which are suited to the scholar better than the mistress.”
By December, three more students arrived. Elizabeth’s school was seen as a perfect fit for anyone wanting to live and learn in a religious setting: religion was the framework of the school day. It began and ended with chapel; the girls said the Rosary and did an examination of conscience every day; on Fridays they read the story of Christ’s Passion and Death. She also prepared children to receive their First Communion.
Move to Emmitsburg: Another Call
In addition to teaching, studying, and praying, Elizabeth was fundraising, appealing to the Filicchis, among others, to help her build a bigger house for her growing community, not only for the school but also for the religious order she wanted to create, what would become the first American Catholic sisterhood, the Sisters of Charity. Samuel Cooper, a seminarian at St. Mary’s who had become a close friend, came through by offering her a large farm (269 acres) he had just purchased in Emmitsburg, Maryland, before entering seminary. Here she was at another crossroads in what had become a fruitful call to teach. Julia thought the move was a mistake, warning her not to give up certainty for uncertainty; Elizabeth once again, however, answered the call and put her faith and trust in God, strengthened by the Word of God she loved so much, “I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord” (Jeremiah 29:11).
Therefore, on June 1, 1809, again on the feast of Corpus Christi (a year after she had arrived in Baltimore), she and her four companions went to Mass together dressed in widow’s weeds, the outfit and bonnet that would become their religious habit as nuns, as they prepared for the next chapter in their lives and vocations.
St. Joseph Academy in Emmitsburg, Maryland
At the Stone House in St. Joseph’s Valley in Emmitsburg, Maryland, the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph was established as an order specifically focused on serving and caring for the children of the poor. On February 22, 1810, the sisters welcomed three Emmitsburg girls to their newly built school, the St. Joseph Free School for Girls. The school quickly became St. Joseph’s Academy and Free School, where Mother Seton, as she became known, educated students in a strong Catholic environment. A hallmark of the school became accepting all students, regardless of their ability to pay (this way rural, poor students could also receive an education). This was the first free Catholic school in the United States.
Elizabeth taught history and religion. When she was not teaching, fundraising, or praying, Elizabeth would be running the school: she visited each class at least once a month to observe the teachers and offer suggestions; she would also track the academic and behavioral progress of all of the students. Even as her health failed near the end of her life and she could no longer teach and became confined to her bedroom, she continued to monitor her students’ progress and would write feedback on their work.
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton put her faith and trust in God’s will, and responded to His call to teach and to serve; in doing so, she helped to grow the faith, which she herself had come to deeply love, in the next generation. She also did the work of planting some of the seeds of what would become the U.S. Catholic school system.